Going viral

The debate over vaccine safety continues to threaten public health more than a decade after a supposed link between vaccines and autism was disproved. In Oregon, public health advocates are trying to fight back with a new law taking effect in March, but an interactive map just released may help their cause.

Beginning March 1, Oregon parents who insist on leaving their children unprotected against communicable diseases will have to meet with a health care provider or watch an educational video before claiming an exemption from state-required immunizations. They can still obtain an exemption for "religious" reasons — defined as "any system of beliefs, practices or ethical values" — but the hope is the health practitioner or the video will convince at least some parents to reconsider.

Anti-vaccine activists complain that the new requirement amounts to harassment by the state and is an unfair burden. If they are still unconvinced that vaccines serve a vital public health purpose, they should take a look at the map prepared by the Council on Foreign Relations.

The map, at http://on.cfr.org/Lbe8mq, marks outbreaks of preventable diseases across the globe since 2008 with color-coded circles. Cases of measles, mostly in Europe, and whooping cough, mostly in the U.S., have increased dramatically since 2008, largely because of parents who resist vaccinating their children. The map also shows outbreaks across the developing world, but epidemics there are the result of lack of access to vaccines, not refusal to administer them.

In the U.S., large epidemics of pertussis (whooping cough) broke out in California in 2010 and in Washington state in 2012. Thousands of people contracted the disease, which could have been prevented had they been vaccinated. Oregon saw more than 400 cases of whooping cough in 2012.

Southern Oregon, Ashland in particular, has one of the highest rates of vaccine exemptions in the state. In Jackson County, 8.5 percent of kindergartners are exempt. In Ashland, about 25 percent of children in public schools claim an exemption.

In Washington state, which began requiring a doctor's signature before granting exemptions in 2011, the rate of exemptions fell 25 percent.

In Oregon, exclusion day — the date by which children must be vaccinated, claim an exemption or be asked to leave school — is Feb. 19, before the new education requirement takes effect, so the new law may not reduce the rate of exemptions this year. But if enough parents take the time to look at the real consequences of vaccine avoidance displayed on the CFR map, they might think twice about claiming an exemption.

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